We think we've figured out the best commuting bike for Los Angeles, the Kawasaki KLR650. Here's why.
In Los Angeles, everyone talks about two topics incessantly: the weather and the traffic. The weather never changes - it’s always a perfect 72 degrees and sunny. The traffic also never changes, but unlike our perennially pleasant climate, it is consistently horrible.
Day in and day out, this is a topic of conversation for those commuting by car in LA. Take the SNL skit “The Californians,” wherein a group of Malibu bimbos lazily chat about which roads they had to take to get from A to Z. As a native Angeleno the skit is both hilarious and depressing because I too have been in those conversations (I’m in one now.)
In LA, the streets are always packed making any commute a struggle—something to figure out, something to outsmart. Except when it’s not. Except when I find myself cruising around town on my KLR650. After years of driving, bicycling and riding a scooter around Los Angeles, I think I might have found the perfect commuter bike: the Kawasaki KLR.
I began riding on two wheels not long after I learned how to walk. Born and raised in LA, I come from a family of passionate cyclists and motorcycle riders. By the age of ten, I was riding dirt bikes with my father and older brothers on weekend adventures. As an adult, I spend my free time cycling in Malibu, watching MotoGP, competing in CycloCross and commuting around town on my 2007 Kawasaki KLR650. It’s fair to say, I’m addicted to the sport.
Soon that rush and release I was feeling on the weekends poured into my day-to-day routine as well. It became clear to me that riding on two-wheels, while a passion and a hobby, could serve as a practical purpose as well.
A decade ago, after sitting in a combined thousand hours of traffic, driving completely lost its luster. As a long time car guy (I still close my eyes and hear Volkswagen Beetles, Ford Mustangs and Porsche 911s revving in my ears like music), this was a dramatic shift. However, as a working person living in LA, getting across town became a chore at best or an absolute nightmare at worst. I was repelled by the sight of bumper to bumper traffic and resentful of the hours wasted sitting behind the wheel. I knew I had to make a change so I began researching scooters.
Photo courtesy of motorscooterguide.net
My first purchase was a classic ‘86 Honda Elite with a pop-up headlight. It was only 150cc, but it set me free. I put 6000 miles on that scooter, riding from Hollywood to the Valley, Pacific Palisades and Malibu. Even though it wasn’t particularly fast (that’s being kind), I was still able to get where I needed to go in a reasonable amount of time. With that one purchase, I became one with the LA streets again. Though a primitive machine, it had all the essential elements of an urban commuter: light weight, nimble handling and a narrow profile for easy lane filtering. Only $1200 bucks on Craigslist, it was the perfect gateway machine for me.
Bigger and Faster
Until it wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong. I have fond memories of that little scooter. Even my safety-conscious wife was happy to hop on the back for a date night. Hey, anything to avoid traffic and parking drama; however, quickly I learned the importance of handling.
The Honda was an underpowered scooter with small tires and little suspension. You feel every imperfection in the road and if you’re not careful, an unnoticed pothole can easily throw you onto the sidewalk or into the bumper of a Prius.
A lesson in attention, the poor handling trained me to carefully scan the road searching out every pothole, bump or stone in my path, as this method was only option of staying on the bike. The streets of Los Angeles are a mirror to the budgetary crisis of City Hall. Covered with unmaintained potholes, the mean streets of LA can resemble dirt paths and driving to work can feel like off-roading in Gorman. Not good. After repeated malfunctions, limited availability of replacement parts and too few mechanics in town who were competent enough to work on a 25-year-old scooter, I sold the Honda.
Photo courtesy of motorscooterguide.net
At the time my next purchase felt like an upgrade and a steal. I paid $2,000 for my ‘05 Kymco Grand Vista from a woman who won it on a game show. With a 250cc water-cooled engine, it was much faster with better suspension and supremely reliable.
Unlike the Honda, it never broke down. But it was still not a fair match against rogue potholes and uneven pavement. After putting 5,000 miles on it, I sold the Kymco. It was time for something better and this time I would have to be resourceful, patient and, above all, flexible.
The Perfect Motorcycle, Is There Such a Thing?
Finding the perfect commuter motorcycle is an exercise in compromise. You might sacrifice performance for comfort and safety, speed for durability and beauty for functionality. In my case, the first compromise I had to address was my wallet. After selling the Kymco and scrounging all the quarters in my sofa, my budget weighed in at $3,000 to spend on a bike.
With higher standards and a firm budget, I was ready to scour Craigslist. There were scooters galore in that price range but they turned out to be underpowered, with inadequate suspension and handling. Also in abundance were 1970s Japanese “cafe” style bikes - stylish, but overpriced, unreliable and difficult to maintain (for a non-gear head like me.)
Then there were cruisers. Affordable and powerful, but not nimble enough for commuting. Most exciting were 1990s - 2000s small displacement sport bikes - affordable, reliable and fast enough to give my wife a heart attack and land me in a lot of trouble. However I’d never been on one before so I wasn’t sure I would be comfortable splitting lanes or maneuvering in tight spaces. They looked amazing carving smooth canyon roads, but weaving thru traffic on Wilshire Blvd? Not worth the risk.
Off-Road, On The Road
So I went back to my roots: dirt bikes. Or more specifically their street legal cousins, dual sports. Right out of the box, they met nearly all of my criteria. Dual sport bikes are rugged with ample suspension; they are nimble and yet powerful enough to keep up with and surpass traffic. Focused on utility, they are neither delicate nor fussy. These bikes are simple, reliable and easy to maintain. And bonus, they happen to be in my budget. Once I began to fantasize about cruising out to the desert for a weekend camping trip, my mind was made up. I became obsessed. I had to have a dual sport.
Initially, I had my heart set on a 2000-2007 BMW F650GS. The bike has the famous Rotax engine that’s highly regarded for its smooth power, fuel economy and reliability. In addition, there are lots of nifty upgrades such as heated hand grips and antilock brakes. But the market proved too competitive for my blood: all bikes in my price range had well over 15,000 miles and were selling before I could see them. Back to the drawing board known as Craigslist.
One night while browsing online, I came across an ad for a 2007 Kawasaki KLR650 out in Redlands for $3000 OBO. It had 3100 miles and an upgrade 6.5 gallon gas tank. The photo was a little blurry. But I was hopeful. This was going to be my bike. In speaking with the owner I got the sense he was an honest guy, and he even insisted on fixing a broken choke lever before selling the bike to me.
As with all relationships (at this point it’s safe to say I have a relationship with my dual sport bike) this one has its imperfections. Perhaps my only complaint is that it vibrates quite a lot. Far from smooth, some say it rides like a goat. Sure it’s a little noisy, a little shakey, a little heavy and not terribly fast but I can count on this bike more than any other I’ve had before. It’s durable and produces ample amounts of torque that will take you to the mountain top and back, as long as you keep the revs up.
Before I bought it, I was a little concerned about its size and weight. Would I really want to muscle around a 400lb bike in traffic? Would it fit between the cars at red lights? It’s a big bike! I find that the handling is much lighter and precise than its 400lb curb weight would suggest. The upright riding position also gives me a better view of traffic. Rather than being hunched over a sport bike or seated down low on a cruiser, on the KLR I’m seated at the same height as in a pickup truck. I’m too short for the stock height, but with lowering links and a lowered saddle I am nearly flat footed at stop lights.
Thirteen hundred miles later, I’m convinced I made the right decision. For less than the price of a new scooter, I have a bike that will take me anywhere - and I mean anywhere - and back. When traversing the disintegrating roads of Los Angeles, I no longer feel limited to a narrow wandering path of potholes avoidance. The suspension soaks it all up with ease and I’m much more relaxed as a result.
READ MORE: 11 Tips for Riding Off-Road | RideApart
Much like getting anywhere in LA, it was a journey getting to this point. Through some trial and error, I found the bike for me that can provide adventures on the weekends and protect my sanity during the weekday commute. Once I learned to understand the bike, there are no surprises, it’s totally predictable. A perfect 72 degree day. Now as I’m driving these palm-tree lined streets of LA not only am I whizzing past the traffic, but, from up here, I’ve got myself quite a view.